WASHINGTON – In this week’s clash of the House titans, the Jewish world is not taking sides. But they certainly wouldn’t be upset if the challenger prevails.
That challenger is the head of the unofficial Jewish caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is trying to take the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee away from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
The leader of that committee will play a huge role in shaping whatever comes out of Capitol Hill regarding at least two issues high on the priority list for both an Obama administration and the Jewish community: energy independence and health care.
Officially, Jewish groups are neutral on the chairmanship battle. For example, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said his organization does not get involved in such congressional leadership battles unless a core principle of the organization is at stake.
“These are two people with generally strong environmental records,” said Saperstein, with the one exception being Dingell’s defense of the auto industry on CAFE, or car fuel-efficiency standards. But the RAC leader also noted that the Michigan lawmaker was instrumental in getting the Clean Air Act passed in 1990, providing a key environmental accomplishment of his own.
“We can definitely work with either one,” Saperstein said.
Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an advocacy umbrella group bringing together national organizations and local Jewish communities, sounded a similar theme.
“JCPA has strong relationships with both Congressman Dingell and Congressman Waxman,” Susskind said. “We’re confident however the situation plays out, we will continue to have great relationships with both of them.”
But while one Washington Jewish insider emphasized that no Jewish organization was lobbying for either contender, he said it was clear where sympathies lie.
“It would be great to have Henry Waxman be chair,” the insider said. “He’s far more progressive and forward thinking” on energy and other issues.
Others who track energy issues in the community agreed.
“Dingell has been extremely active to try to protect the auto industry,” said a different Jewish communal insider. “Certainly Waxman would be preferable.”
Energy experts noted how Dingell, as the auto industry’s chief champion, long dragged his feet on legislation to increase fuel-mileage standards before finally passing a bill last year that would impose a 40-percent increase in efficiency on Detroit — although at a slower pace than many would have preferred.
The Michigan Democrat, who chaired the committee from 1981 through 1995, and then retook the slot when Democrats regained majority status in 2007, also has opposed giving California a waiver to set its own “cap-and-trade” standards on carbon emissions that would be more stringent than the ones enacted by the federal government.
One Jewish communal insider noted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created a separate committee to deal with the climate change issue because of Dingell’s reluctance to engage on the matter. Yet Dingell did recently introduce a draft of a climate-change bill that would set a goal of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases — the same as the Obama campaign’s position.
The differences between Dingell and the 69-year-old Waxman, currently chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on the health-care issue are less stark. Both have been supporters of a universal health-care system.
Waxman does have one big advantage when it comes to working with the White House: His longtime chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, will serve as Obama’s assistant to the president for legislative affairs and be the administration’s chief liaison to Capitol Hill.
While Waxman has a much stronger record on Israel than Dingell, Jewish insiders say that plays no role in a race for chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. But as the senior Jewish member in the House of Representatives, the Californian has built strong bonds with Jewish community leaders in Washington.
“Henry Waxman has clearly reached out to the Jewish community,” Saperstein said. “He’s extremely comfortable” with the community and formed “deep and close relationships.”
Whoever wins will be one of the most powerful people in Washington over the next two years.
“The chair of a committee plays a very important role, even more so in the House than in the Senate,” said Forrest Maltzman, a professor of political science at George Washington University who specializes in the study of the role of congressional committees.
While Maltzman noted that Watergate-era reforms have taken away some of the influence that congressional chairmen used to wield in the civil-rights era, they still are generally able to bottle up legislation they don’t support.
“There’s still a lot of power there,” Maltzman said. “There are ways to work around a chair, but they are complicated and frequently fail.”
Maltzman said a Waxman victory could have a “huge impact” on the House and would represent a “generational change” in that Dingell is the “last of the older generation.” In fact, the 82-year-old Dingell, who was first elected to the House in 1955, is on pace to become the longest-serving member in the body’s history early next year.
A vote of the 50-member Democratic Steering and Policy Committee was expected to take place Wednesday. The committee will make a recommendation to the full House Democratic Caucus, which was likely to vote Thursday.